David M. Quinn


Bringing Your Genealogy to Life

by David M. Quinn

A significant problem facing active and would-be genealogists is: How to communicate one's findings in a way that is broadly interesting and entertaining within and outside of one's family circle? Most of us have been subjected to dry recitations of vital statistics, migration records, descendancy charts, etc. These will hold the interest of only the most committed enthusiasts. For others there has to be a better way — and I believe there is.

In 1976, Alex Haley published his landmark book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Though many genealogists have quarreled with some of Haley's methods and conclusions, one cannot argue with the popular impact of his work. Reading his book and, later, watching its dramatic portrayal as a television miniseries launched my personal interest in genealogy. But, at the time, I didn't really think a great deal about the vehicle he chose to communicate his family's story: the historical novel.

By the early 1980s, I was pursuing the paternal family history using the traditional methods of genealogical research in the pre-Internet era. I would not tout myself as any kind of genealogical expert. I was just following the paper trail as best as I could discern it. In 1982 I visited Ireland and devoted much time and effort viewing microfilm records at the National Library in Dublin and visiting villages, libraries and cemeteries in County Roscommon. I knew my ancestors had survived the Irish Potato Famine, but how? What sustained them between those desperate years and the 1860s when they finally arrived in America?

My goal was limited — data collection only. I had no vision of doing much with it. Later investigations of the family's years in the United States produced more data, some of which had great narrative potential. But I still lacked the vision. Only with the opportunity of an early retirement in the late 1990s did I begin to think in terms of turning my collected data into a story for the benefit of family and friends.

I redoubled my research efforts, focusing now on understanding the world in which my ancestors lived. I needed to place them into a context of the social, political, and economic realities of their day. In doing so, I achieved a flesh and blood understanding that could be applied to the genealogical "skeleton".

In the meantime, my enthusiasm for the historical novel format was heightened by Michael Shaara's Killer Angels, a powerful, Pulitzer-prize winning account of the battle of Gettysburg. Shaara's ability to get into the heads of his protagonists and his use of dialogue conveyed history in a refreshing and compelling way. Here I discovered a style of writing that suited my desire to "package" my genealogical findings — not only for family, but also for the broader literary marketplace.

Choosing a theme was important. What lessons had I learned from my ancestors? What choices of theirs led to success or failure? What advice might they have given, if I could have been around to ask them? Once identified, my theme had to be told through the actions and dialogue of my characters. I had to avoid a didactic or preaching approach in conveying the chosen theme.

I still needed to find personalities for my characters. Some of these, the ancestors themselves, could easily have possessed attitudes, mannerisms, and behaviors which they passed genetically to contemporary family members. I freely appropriated aspects of these personalities and applied them without attribution. For non-ancestral characters, I depended upon the historical records and personal attributes of other memorable acquaintances of my life.

In recent years I turned my attention to a maternal ancestor, a Maine mariner. Captain George W. Dow was the master of the world's largest sailing ship. His survival of a tragic shipwreck provided another opportunity to communicate genealogical discovery in a most dramatic fashion.

I wish to state, unequivocally, that my chosen means of communicating genealogical findings is not for everyone, certainly not for the faint-hearted. Nevertheless, for those with the time and desire, it is a doable task. I had to go back to school to learn the craft of creative writing and attend writers' workshops, but in retirement such efforts were not onerous. Also, changes in the publishing industry in recent years have opened up effective and low-cost options for writers. Self-publishing, print-on-demand, and e-book availability can serve those whose audience is limited to family and friends, as well as those who desire a broader audience.

Here are my suggested steps for those wishing to consider telling their family story in a way that people will readily embrace:

  • Marshall Your Genealogical Facts
  • Establish the Historical Context for Your Characters
  • Select Your Theme
  • Give Your Characters Full, Believable Personalities
  • Write Your Story
  • Choose Your Audience and the Publication Strategy that Fits the Audience

For those who take the challenge, I wish you great success. I know that many of you have great stories to tell. I can personally attest to the deep personal satisfaction one can achieve in the effort. You can get a flavor of what my approach can deliver in each of my published works:

  • It May Be Forever - An Irish Rebel on the American Frontier (Authorhouse, 2005)
  • Leviathan's Master - The Wreck of the World's Largest Sailing Ship (iUniverse, 2009)
  • Steel Shamrocks – The Sons of Annie McKenna (iUniverse, 2014)

" Master storyteller David Quinn erases time ... To transport the reader is the writer's job. Quinn does just that ... " Mary Sojourner - Novelist of the Southwest

David Quinn is an American author writing historical fiction. His fact-based tales are drawn from the true-life adventures of ancestors discovered through his hobby of genealogy. Whether in the Irish immigrant experience, frontier days in the Old West or in a dramatic sea story, Quinn adds a personal connection to the historical record by giving his characters thoughts, emotions and dialogue.

Copyright 2017. All Rights Reserved. David M. Quinn, Author